Growing up in the Parkchester section of the Bronx, my hangout was "the Shuff," and on an average weekend night, there would be more than 200 high school students hanging out and having a great time, some singing along to tunes on their transistor radios. I could also hop on a subway and go see some incredible bands down in Greenwich Village.

We didn't have a teen center in my neighborhood; we had hangouts. Looking back, I wish there would have been a place like the Depot, Darien's teen center.

The Depot is a magical place, and definitely qualifies as one of the coolest, if not the coolest, teen center. Over the years, it's been home to every imaginable teen activity -- band nights, car washes, Jell-O wrestling, sports captains dinners, movie and pizza, chill nights, holiday parties, open mic nights, best of the best, celebrity chef nights, improvisational comedy shows, CSI: Darien and a benefit for Darfur.

What's great is that the student governing board comes up with ideas for events, plans and promotes them, and raises money to put on them on.

"Running a teen center is definitely a challenge; keeping it together and adapting to the times as the social life of teens evolves over the years. I love working with the students; they're fantastic," said Janice Marzano, who is in her 11th year as the director of the Depot.

Marzano has always loved working with kids and she has amassed the largest extended family in the known universe.

Her credo on how to run a teen center: "Everybody deserves the right to be safe and we keep it that way. It's important for me to make the place comfortable, where everyone is equal. They can be themselves; they're not judged here, and even if they don't talk in the school cafeteria, here they do. There's no cliques and absolutely no one to impress."

Marzano is there when someone needs to talk, she is a shoulder to cry on and truly understands the importance of listening. She's on call for the kids and has a lot of empathy for kids going through tough times. She's open-minded and believes that it's harmful to prejudge or stereotype people.

"I think that one of the things that's magic about the Depot is its ability to stay current in the lives of Darien teens and Janice deserves a lot of credit for that. I realize that it's impossible for the Depot to be all things to all people, but it can be something to everyone," said Alicia Sillars, first executive director of the Depot and director of the Darien Youth Commission.

"Janice is open hearted and knows when to give certain advice. She's unlike anyone I've ever met. She's great at balancing love and hard advice," said Shawn Osorio, a junior at Darien High School and Depot employee.

Ken Martin has been involved with the Depot/Youth Commission summer camp since he was 13, first as a camper, then as a counselor. "Janice is definitely a hidden gem in the community. She's a huge strength and a fixture in the community. She's a great schmoozer and gets things done," Martin said. "All the kids are comfortable with Janice; she's had a great impact on the kid's lives."

Marzano and I believe that it's a tough time to grow up in. "Over the years, kids perception of living and entertainment has radically changed. With Facebook, Skype, tweeting and texting, they don't talk to each other as much face to face -- it's totally whack," Marzano said.

In addition to special events, the Depot provides leadership, community service and volunteer opportunities.

"We have a core group that hangs out regularly, however there are so many organizations that use the Depot on a nightly basis. Groups like SADD (Students Against Destructive Decisions), Global Girls, the student governing board, just to name a few, have made the Depot so much more than just a hang out. It's great to see these young people committing themselves to so many great causes, and hundreds of kids coming through the Depot doors each week," said John Miceli, assistant program director since 2005.

What makes it work for Marzano are the kids and watching programs they started grow.

"We started a SADD chapter in 2009 with seven kids, and now there are 60 kids actively participating," Marzano said.

SADD is a peer-to-peer education, prevention and activism organization dedicated to preventing destructive decisions, particularly underage drinking, other drug use, risky and impaired driving, teen violence, and teen suicide. Their mission is to provide students with the best prevention tools possible to deal with the issues of underage drinking, other drug use, impaired driving and other destructive decisions.

During prom week, SADD organizes a Grim Reaper Day to help students understand the dangers of drinking. Kids dress in black as the grim reaper, and go into a classroom every 33 minutes -- every 33 minutes a drunk driver kills someone -- and pull out a kid. The kids pulled out of class puts on a T-shirt that says "I'm just a memory," and the time they died. They don't talk the rest of the day and they carry a rose. At the end of the day they line up in front of the school. The kids pledge to remain risk free for homecoming.

"It's very emotional to see all the kids line up and it definitely makes the point," Marzano said.

SADD also participates in Red Ribbon Week, when they put up posters reading "It's Up To Me To Be Drug Free," and Kick Butts Day when they set up booths at Middlesex Middle School and Darien High School to educate students about the dangers of smoking.

Marzano feels that it's important to bring awareness of the consequences of risky behavior to the forefront of teen minds. She is a believer in the power of kids helping kids, and feels kids deserve more credit then they get.

DHS senior and president of the Depot SADD chapter agreed.

"I believe that we're empowered to help one another; as high school students we're the most effective force in getting students to think about their decisions. Teens have the idea they're invincible and that it can't happen to them, but it can if they're not safe. We in SADD feel it's important to realize that destructive decisions can lead to serious trouble. Janice works very well with teens and we're very lucky to have her."

Abby Leinroth, a senior and vice president of the Depot SADD chapter said Marzano is the "powerhouse behind the depot," adding that "Peer influence has a more positive impact and a definite motivational impact."

Senior Sami Testa said SADD is successful because it's student-run and members can relate to the other students.

The Depot has thrived under her leadership and guidance. She is the personification of professional excellence in her dedication to helping young people -- her staff has been there for a long time and is equally caring and dedicated -- and I can say unequivocally that she makes a difference in their lives.

Prominently displayed on one of the Depot walls is a painting by Mikaela Hill. It's an artistic description of what the Depot's all about: "Helping hands, respect, laughter, support, community, smiles, hanging out together, love and a place where friends can have fun."

Truer words were never written.

Barry Halpin is a prevention specialist for Liberation Programs, a substance abuse health-care agency based in Stamford that provides substance abuse counseling to adolescents and their families in Darien. He's also the director of the county-wide Peer Players, an adolescent theater company. Email him at barryhalpin@aol.com.